Microsoft is planning a big push into unified communications, describing a grand vision covering VoIP, instant messaging, audioconferencing, videoconferencing, and e-mail. Built primarily on new versions of current products, the combination of new and renamed products is intended to appeal to enterprise IT types who want to bring all of their company’s communications under a single umbrella.
"Unified communications will drive the next major advancement in individual, team and organizational productivity in today’s 24×7, always-connected and increasingly mobile work environment," Microsoft Business Division president Jeff Raikes said. "We believe that through software, we can transform business communications (bringing down both its cost and complexity) by now integrating voice communications with the familiar and powerful communications and collaboration experiences provided by Microsoft."
The set of applications includes Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007, Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, Microsoft Office Communicator 2007, Microsoft Office Live Meeting, Microsoft Office RoundTable, and Microsoft office Communicator for devices.
Microsoft Office Communicator, which has been used primarily for instant messaging, will get VoIP capabilities and will allow employees to check voice mail and receive faxes directly on their PCs. Live Communications Server is being renamed Office Communications Server; the newly renamed application will support VoIP, audio-/video-conferencing, and web conferencing.
Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 will also be seeing some communications-related upgrades. The next version will support a "unified inbox" for voice mail, e-mail, and faxes. In addition, employees who forgot their laptops and BlackBerrys will be able to dial into the office and check their calendars and e-mail. An automated attendant will guide the user through their calendars and inboxes, reading them all the mortgage offers that made it through the company’s spam filters.
Companies such as Motorola, Samsung, and others will manufacture peripherals for use with Microsoft’s suite of communications software, such as phones, USB headsets, and USB webcams. Some business telephone manufacturers will begin shipping phones that use Microsoft Office Communicator for devices, ensuring a high degree of integration with Microsoft’s communications suite.
Microsoft is facing what some would describe as uncertain growth prospects in enterprise IT. While the company has Vista and Office 2007 coming out early next year, the corporate world is notoriously cautious when it comes to upgrading. A polished, easy-to-administer and use suite of communications applications could be exactly what the doctor ordered for Microsoft, as there is a growing need for the kind of unified communications architecture the software giant is planning to launch.
Microsoft is also counting on the initiative to increase its groupware market share lead. As of July 2005, about 32 percent of groupware users were on Microsoft Exchange, with IBM’s Notes taking second place with 24 percent. Exchange has seen its market share growing at the expense of Notes, and rolling a unified suite of communications tools into its groupware is another way for the company to promote its groupware solution.